This is the fifth novel in Gore Vidal’s chronicle of American history. So far it runs from Burr (1973) to Lincoln (1984) and 1876 (1976), then on to Washington, D.C. (1967) and the onset of World War II. Empire covers the turn of the century, from 1898 with William McKinley’s administration, to 1906, when Theodore Roosevelt, who came to office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, had reached the middle of his first elected term. Roosevelt had already helped set the course of American empire as McKinley’s assistant secretary of the Navy. Presiding over the buildup of the American fleet, he was strongly persuaded by the views of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, author in 1890 of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and of his friend Brooks Adams, whose Law of Civilization and Decay (1895) argued that political supremacy depended largely on the control of trade routes.
Roosevelt did not need much persuading. He had reached similar conclusions in 1882 with his own The Naval War of 1812. An ardent supporter of American expansion, he agreed with the Brooks Adams of America’s Economic Supremacy (1900) that “supremacy has always entailed sacrifices as well as triumphs, and fortune has seldom smiled on those who, besides being energetic and industrious, have not been armed, organized, and bold.” “Bully,” as Roosevelt is apt to say several times too often in this novel, clicking his ever visible “tombstone teeth.”
Roosevelt had a large element of the ridiculous in him, but as presidents go, he was unusually smart. Because of him America was “armed, organized, and bold” at the right time and place. So that while the American people may have been taken by surprise, Roosevelt and the fleet were ready when the Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, then a Spanish possession. The fleet was so close to the Philippines that William James, one of the teachers exasperated by Teddy’s loquacity at Harvard, and later an officer of the Anti-Imperialist League—he is absent from Vidal’s glittering cast of characters—was among those who wondered just how surprised anyone had a right to be. James could not then have known that Roosevelt, while briefly replacing his superior at Navy, had secretly ordered Admiral Dewey to assemble his ships at Hong Kong, from which they could steam into Manila and destroy the Spanish Armada.
In a mere ten weeks America had come into possession of a vast empire that included Cuba, to which independence of a sort was granted, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The Philippines took time to overcome, requiring the brutal suppression of an independence movement originally armed and inspired by the islands’ new conquerors, and at a cost in lives, fortune, and honor greater than the cost of the war with Spain. All told it had been, in John Hay’s phrase, “a splendid little war.”
Empire opens with a house party at Surrenden Dering, deep in the English countryside, a day after the war has ended. The hosts are the recently retired senator from Pennsylvania, Don Cameron, and his wife, Elizabeth, niece of General Sherman, the hero of an earlier war (though not if you lived in Atlanta). Elizabeth is the adored confidante here, as she was in life, of another house guest, the historian and novelist Henry Adams. The opening has the suggestion of scenes in Henry James, who in fact drops by for lunch. This is a James more convincingly portrayed even than he is in Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance or in Simon Nowell-Smith’s invaluable compilation of reminiscences, The Legend of the Master. And while Vidal may have depended on such sources for rendering the great novelist’s manner and cadences of speech, he enriches them by drawing from the fiction and critical writings, other qualities, of sharpness, worldly perception, confidence, toughness.
Vidal’s James is a figure of benign, alert majesty who will prove more than a match, later on, for the effusive conversational aggressions of President Roosevelt at a White House dinner, one that actually did take place. How appropriate to James’s life, and signally to the theme of Vidal’s novel though outside its time frame, that a novelist who brought two continents under his sovereignty began signing his letters in the delirium of his final illness with the name “Napoleone,” using, as Leon Edel points out, the old Corsican spelling. With his relaxed, receptive, skeptical style, James in Vidal’s opening chapter is an early indication of how the novel itself will deal with its powerful and famous characters. He gently demolishes the assertive pomposities of Brooks Adams, who on this as on other occasions manages to irritate his brother Henry, and to deride affectionately the patriotic, sentimental dialect poems composed by another guest, John Hay, the ambassador to the Court of Saint James, former assistant secretary to Lincoln, and soon to be called back to Washngon as McKinley’s secretary of state.
Also introduced in this first chapter is the fictional heroine of the book, Caroline Sanford. Like Isabel Archer in James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Caroline intends to be a “free” woman. But James’s heroines have an unfortunate habit of renunciation, and Caroline will have none of it. In her own mind she doesn’t rule out sleeping with a woman as readily as with a man; she will get the inheritance that her brother Blaise tries to deny her; and she determines on a career in Washington, unheard of for a woman. She transforms a respectable but impoverished newspaper into a sensationalist and politically powerful one, while acquiring an illegitimate daughter during her and the book’s one extended sexual affair—an emotionally cool one—with a married congressman, James Burden Day.
It will be obvious that in Empire the fictive and the historical, the social and the legendary are inextricably mixed. These elements are rendered in a style that allows no single one to be differentiated from the others. All are concerned with the same issues of inheritance, legitimacy, rivalry, deception, and ambition. Such a mixture can be found in many good historical novels, but Vidal means something more by this fusion. For him, historical position and achievement notwithstanding, the historically great are no different from the fictive persons about them. Part of Vidal’s originality derives from his assurance that he can create and command the American history of his novels, as much as he can their imaginary components. No other American writer I know of has Vidal’s sense of national proprietorship. He summons the entire American scene into his confident voice. Vidal’s presumptions work marvelously well for his intentions and, for reasons that I’ll get to in a moment, for the political point he wants to make.
Taking a position involves limitations, however, and these include for Vidal a reluctance to confront anything that cannot be brought within the control of his urbane view. He has none of the humility claimed, for example, by Henry James in his own The American Scene, of 1907, the very period of this novel. Speaking of New York City and its awesome differences from the New York of his youth, James admits that
the reflecting surface of the ironic, of the epic order, suspended in the New York atmosphere, have yet to show symptoms of shining out, and the monstrous phenomena themselves, meanwhile, strike me as having, with their immense momentum, got the start, got ahead of, in proper parlance, any possibility of poetic, of dramatic capture.
There are similar moments in Mailer, Bellow, or Pynchon when they try to express the obscure nature of the American identity as it exists in urban landscapes or in poor, marginal, or inarticulate people. Vidal deals with such scenes and human types almost exclusively in the series that includes Myra Breckinridge, Myron, and Duluth, novels that reveal how, parodistically at least, he can explore the American unconscious. In Empire, however, he limits himself to highly self-conscious people of the governing and dominant classes. The implication is clear: from the first exchanges between Hay, Henry James, and the Adams brothers, with Caroline and her fiancé Del Hay listening in, polite conversation is meant fully to account for national, international, or geopolitical reality.
Such an approach might easily foreclose “any possibility of poetic, of dramatic capture” of those elements that yield only to less self-assured approaches. But the danger is mostly outweighed, I think, by the political as well as literary benefits in Vidal’s directness, clarity, and purposiveness of style, as if he shares in part at least, the perception of Hay,
who thought of the [White House]—the city, too, and the republic beyond—as a theater, with a somewhat limited repertory of plays; and types.
Vidal’s style is an effective instrument to clear away the verbal trappings of “empire,” to dispel any metaphysics about the kinds of power necessary to its acquisition, and to expose the mythologies that have made it palatable, especially to a country that recoils incredulously when the word is applied to it. Even the admirable McKinley wanted to believe that only on his knees and in prayer was he able to annex the Philippines. We had a duty to Christianize it, he said of a country that was already 80 percent Christian.
On the subject of “empire,” Vidal is writing outside the dominant traditions in which imperial power is usually represented in English. Melville, Conrad, and, later, Faulkner, Mailer, and Pynchon write about the imperial quest as if its source, movements, and results are necessarily concealed; it is a mystery that calls for a style correspondingly elaborate and suggestive, full of hints of mysteries that cannot ever be revealed. Heart of Darkness treats imperialism in the way The Turn of the Screw treats its ghosts. By contrast Vidal’s prose is intended to strip American imperialism of its mystery and to deny in the American political landscape the “hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning” that a character in Pynchon finds in a configuration of California lights.
I tend to prefer prose that carries a greater sense of the inexpressible, of imponderables, than Vidal’s prose characteristically does, so I would argue that a less direct prose can at the same time carry to even greater lengths Vidal’s quizzical sense of politics and history. Moby-Dick, arguably the greatest novel written by an American, is also a critique of nineteenth-century capitalistic imperialism, especially toward colonial people. The critique is implicit in Melville’s style, which reveals how imperialism has been shrouded in a rhetoric of mystification even for its main actors. Vidal’s recent comment in these pages in an article on Anthony Burgess—that people do not find Ahab nearly comic enough—is not so much wrong as myopic, and an indication of how resolute he is in opposing anything less than the clearest possible exposure of the betrayal of the country’s purpose that began with the founders themselves and intensified with the Louisiana Purchase.
However, when it comes to America, Vidal also has some of Santayana’s ambivalence. I mean the Santayana who refers contemptuously to William James’s complaints about the American seizure of empire from Santayana’s native Spain. Santayana writes in Persons and Places that James
cried disconsolately that he had lost his country, when his country, just beginning to play its part in the history of the world, appeared to ignore an ideal that he had innocently expected would always guide it, because this ideal had been eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration of Independence was a piece of literature, a salad of illusions…. The American Colonies were rehearsing independence and were ready for it; that was what gave their declaration of their independence timeliness and political weight. In 1898 the United States were rehearsing domination over tropical America and were ready to organize and to legalise it; it served their commercial and military interests and their imaginative passions. Such antecedents and such facilities made intervention sooner or later inevitable…. James’s displeasure at the seizure of the Philippines was therefore, from my point of view, merely accidental. It did not indicate any sympathy with Spain, or with anything in history that interests and delights me. On the contrary, it was an expression of principles entirely opposed to mine; much more so than the impulses of young, ambitious, enterprising America.
While in this passage Santayana is unambiguous in his approval of American imperialism he also shares Vidal’s hard-nosed worldliness, along with an appreciation, often overlooked in Vidal’s fiction, of “young, ambitious, enterprising America.” Myra Breckinridge is herself a thwarted version of this appreciation, and Caroline Sanford is an earlier, more respectable version of Myra. Caroline will have her way and do the best she can for herself despite those who try to crush her. She is no less charmingly Luciferian than Burr, another aspirant to empire outside the official one. Pregnant by Congressman Day, she gets herself a husband by agreeing to pay the debts of a hapless lawyer who is her cousin and whose bed she will never share; threatened by her half and only brother, Blaise, with a takeover of her newspaper, and guessing that he is secretly of her own same-sex inclinations, she gets Congressman Day to seduce him, thereby giving her the leverage of blackmail over both of them. And yet Henry Adams endorses Vidal’s high opinion of Caroline. As in The Education, where he is charmed by Clarence King as “the ideal American they all want to be,” Adams is admiring here someone with the energy and knowledge equal to the accelerating demands of a new age, while persevering in the ideals of the old. Neither Adams nor Vidal asks that so capable a person should also be nice.
Vidal is not in any simple way against “empire.” He has spoken nostalgically about the ten-year period after World War II, when America was the most powerful empire the world has ever known. He calls it “the golden age,” which is to be the title of the summary volume in his American history chronicle. “What potential there was for the Republic and how we blew it,” he laments in a recent issue of Interview.* Rather, he opposes the brutal and self-defeating ways of getting and managing an empire, one example of which is the McCarthyist brand of anticommunism that helped bring “the golden age” to an early end. Nor is he complaining that America, like other countries, creates fictional apologias for expansion. It is the proliferation, mechanization, and shabbiness of its fictions that, in his view, have so sickened and corrupted the nation. Empire locates this process of corruption in the conjunction, at the turn of the century, of Roosevelt’s jingoism with Hearst’s yellow journalism, a term derived from the yellow ink used in printing a cartoon strip called “The Yellow Kid,” in Hearst’s The New York Journal.
Roosevelt and Hearst are, by the end of the novel, the leading contenders for control of the “empire,” and in the meeting that brings the novel to its close, the President must grotesquely shove his rival aside in order to secure his own chair at the head of the cabinet table. There are several exquisitely managed scenes in this novel between people of immense personal force, as when Hay and the supercilious Elihu Root gradually bait the aspiring Roosevelt into the admission, “I hate irony.” But perhaps the best such scene is the final one in which Roosevelt and Hearst each claim to have invented the American empire. Hearst says at one point that “the future’s with the common man, and there are a whole lot more of him than there are of you…” “Or you,” Roosevelt replies.
Who is this “common man”? After Roosevelt and Hearst use the exhausted rhetorical expression the issue is dropped. Vidal means to suggest, I think, that in the America dominated by these two, “the common man” is effectively passing out of existence, already at century’s turn about to disappear into the combination of mass press and governmental brainwashing that, having to some extent shaped him, now largely produces him. This invites us, I think, to read Myra Breckinridge, along with Myron and Duluth, as post-Hearstian comedies, in which human beings have devolved into grotesque assemblages, patched together out of images created by television serials and grade B movies. These three books are comic-nightmare versions of Vidal’s realistic historical novels.
Is history fiction? Is fiction history? Roosevelt jeeringly remarks to Hearst at the end of Empire that “I was aware of your pretentions as a publisher, but I never realized that you are the sole inventor of us all.” “Oh, I wouldn’t put it so grandly,” Hearst replies with impressive calm. “I just make up this country pretty much as it happens to be at the moment.” The two are clearly not practiced in analytic philosophy—what does it mean to “make up” something if the something already “happens to be”?—but Hearst brings as much discrimination to the issue as it deserves. Fiction making is and always has been an essential part of the making of history, essential, that is, even to the decision that something, and not some other thing, deserves to be called “history.” The fictionizing occurs not only retrospectively but on the spot, as in Greek mythology, allusions to which are frequent in this book. The ancients, too, needed the mythologies they gave themselves before handing them on to us, for our eager adaptations. In life fiction is no less inseparable from history than it is in Vidal’s historical novels. He confirms this with a technical brilliance the more impressive for being nearly invisible, especially in his characterization of McKinley.
Vidal regards McKinley as some revisionist estimates have recently done, as the first great president since Lincoln. In the novel, the revisionist process is transferred from later historical interpretations and given to the actually engaged figures in McKinley’s own circle. The men around him feel driven by events, and by their own quest for historical importance, to displace one fiction about the President—that he is a pawn of Marc Hanna, the Ohio millionaire who helped him to the White House—with another, in which he is, as Brooks Adams describes him, “our Alexander. Our Caesar. Our Lincoln reborn.” McKinley is, in Vidal’s portrait, quietly occupied with his wife, with food in great quantities, and with small-town musings on “whether we are really going to set up shop in the empire business or not.” He is an endearing rather than a grand enigma, and becomes enigmatic at all only because he is involved in a new political situation that asks him to be more than he knows himself to be. Events require a figure commensurately imposing. Meanwhile, however, McKinley’s true greatness consists in his modest but crafty demurrals, and the space his modesty gives him for sanity, flexibility, and independence. What better empire than that?
June 1987, p.94.↩
June 1987, p.94.↩